Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 1 December 2020

Nagorno-Karabakh residents inspect destroyed homes during ceasefire

Devastated home owner rails at Azerbaijan and Turkey for damage to neighbourhoods

Guennadi Avanessian had a large, two-storey house at 28 Saroyan Street, with a wooden terrace and vines laden with dark grapes.

But his comfortable middle-class home in a well-off street of Stepanakert, the largest city in the war-hit Nagorno-Karabakh region, has been smashed to pieces during the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

"I spent two years renovating this house with my own hands, and [Azerbaijani president Ilham] Aliyev destroyed it in two seconds with his bombs," Mr Avanessian, in his seventies, rages to anyone who will listen.

He clambers on to the huge heap of debris that is all that remains after the gutted house collapsed.

With a shovel, Mr Avanessian searches through the twisted sheet metal, bits and pieces of his home and traces of his former life.

Azerbaijani forces bombarded the area a week ago, and it is the first time he has returned.

He was looking to scrape together whatever could be salvaged during a lull in the fighting after a ceasefire came into force on Saturday at noon.

But new explosions rocked the capital on Saturday, with Azerbaijan and Armenia immediately accusing each other of violations.

The ceasefire agreement did appear to curb artillery fire during the afternoon, with some Stepanakert residents emerging from their homes after days of heavy bombardment.

Both sides accused each other of further violations on Sunday.

But a senior Azerbaijani official said the truce was only meant to be temporary.

"It's a humanitarian ceasefire to exchange bodies and prisoners. It's not a [proper] ceasefire," the official said.

He said Baku had "no intention to backtrack" on its effort to retake control of Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh's military officials denied Azerbaijan's claims that they had attacked its second-largest city, Ganja, and accused the enemy of shelling Stepanakert and other towns during the night.

Azerbaijani authorities had claimed that nine civilians were killed and more than 30 wounded in Ganja.

Arayik Haratyunyan, the leader of ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, described the situation as relatively calm on Sunday morning, but said he did not know how long it would last.

Mr Haratyunyan said said the process of the two sides exchanging prisoners should have started on Sunday, but that it was unclear if and when it would happen.

The disputed territory is an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, home to about 150,000 people, which broke away in a war in the 1990s that killed about 30,000 people.

Its separatist government is strongly backed by Armenia, which like Azerbaijan gained independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

The most recent fighting that began on September 27 has been the heaviest since the 1990s war.

More than 450 people have been reported dead, thousands forced to flee their homes and fears that the fighting could escalate into all-out conflict.

Mr Avanessian said he was lucky to survive the attack on his home.

"I was here when the rocket came down," he said. "I heard a whistle and I rushed into the cellar. I was two seconds away from being killed.

His son-in-law, also in the house that day, survived with an injury – a minor miracle given the total destruction visited on the house.

"It's a Smerch rocket that did this," Mr Avanessian said, referring to the Soviet-era Tornado missiles that have been falling on Karabakh's largest city in the past week of fighting.

"Where will I live now? Under the stars, under the rain? I had everything and now I have nothing left.

"Everything's blown apart. The only thing I could find was a suitcase with children's clothes.

"How can one man do this to another? Aliyev, you say that Karabakh is Azerbaijan. If I live in Azerbaijan, why have you bombed my house?"

"I built this house to live in peace and they've destroyed it. The Azerbaijanis are bombing civilians. They're murderers, extremists."

The retired police officer also had angry words for Turkey, which has encouraged its ally, Azerbaijan, during the fighting.

"A curse on Erdogan," he said, heaping insults on the Turkish president.

Updated: October 12, 2020 12:13 AM

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